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Cormac McCarthy: The Passenger

McCarthy’s novel tells the story of two twins, Alicia and Bobby Western. You will notice the Dad-joke level wit with the surnames of the twins referring to the genre in which McCarthy made his name. Bobby is wittily nicknamed Squire Western, a reference to a character in the novel Tom Jones. The jokes do not get much better though fade away as the book develops.

We first meet Alicia when she is dead, her body found in the snow by a hunter. Her death by suicide is prefigured early on in a strange sequence with a presumably imaginary character called only The Thalidomide Kid, as his mother had used thalidomide, leaving him ectromelic. The Kid and a motley crew of vaudeville characters will pop up throughout the book. the Kid takes the lead and is highly critical of Alica but she seems to more or less tolerate him and his friends though they are clearly imaginary. Just so as we know what is going, these sections are in italics. Later in the book, Bobby will see them, too.

It becomes very clear that the twins were very close, indeed, in love with one another, and that Alicia’s death had a devastating effect on Bobby. She had first considered suicide when she was fourteen and had spent some time in an institution. She will not be the only character in this book to spend time in an institution.

The twins had another issue. Their father was involved in the development of the atom bomb used in Nagasaki and they clearly feel guilt about it. Both their parents – their mother worked at Oak Ridge as well – have now died from cancer.

The main plot (according to the title) starts sometime later. Bobby is a salvage diver. Normally, he recovers goods lost at sea but when we meet him along the causeway, coming out of New Orleans and heading east along US 90 toward Pass Christian, Biloxi, Mobile, he and his colleague Oiler are investigating a plane found in the sea.

There are lots of odd things about this plane crash, involving two crew and seven passengers.

1. No-one seems to have reported that the plane was missing.
2. It was reported by a fisherman but it is not clear how he managed to see it as it beneath very murky depths.
3. There is a suspicion that the divers were not the first to enter the plane.
4. The passengers were still in their seats, suggesting they died before the plane crashed into the sea.
5. The pilot’s flightbag was missing.
6, There was hardly any damage to be seen.

Things get mysteriouser and mysteriouser. Strange people, nominally some sort of officials, will follow and accost Bobby, asking questions and seemingly searching his room when he is out, causing him to move. The main issue is that seven passengers and two crew members were found in the plane but the plane apparently had eight passengers when it took off. However, despite it having disappeared and the plane being found in the sea, there is no report of the incident in the press. (This was before the Internet.)

Bobby does his own research in the neighbouring islands and finds evidence that someone has been there recently with an inflatable dinghy but that is only the beginning. The plot drifts in and out as we learn his back story, the story of Alicia and how Bobby now struggles along with his life. But the plot does keep intervening as clearly they, whoever they may be, have him in his focus. Indeed, it seems possible that they may be interested in his father’s work. He tries to keep one step ahead of them, not least because if he is caught there is a real risk of jail but his life on the run is neither easy nor happy. It is not clear to him or us whether they are after him for what he saw (or did not see), because of the missing passenger or because of his father’s work.

All the main characters and some of the minor characters are clearly unhappy. More than once in a review I have quoted Thoreau, via Pink Floyd about the idea of living a life of quiet desperation and clearly that is what is happening to these characters.

Bobby travels on a boat called Joven Dolores, i.e. Young Dolores but he translates the name Dolores and names the boat Young Sorrows. (Pedant’s corner: if the boat had been called Young Sorrows it would have been Jovenes Dolores.) This might also be a reference to Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, whose eponymous hero has a life full of sorrow because of unrequited love.

Whether it is sorrow or quiet desperation, neither Bobby nor the majority of his acquaintances seem able to cope with life. They end up lost, dead or in institutions. Indeed the strength of this novel is how McCarthy shows their miseries. The last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens about him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow. is just one comment and Bobby himself says But the truth is I’ve failed everyone who ever came to me for help. Ever sought my friendship while one man in an institution tells Bobby I think a lot of people would elect to be dead if they didn’t have to die.

With the obvious exception of Alicia, virtually all the characters are male, except for a few mothers, casual girlfriends, waitresses and the like, which we would expect in a McCarthy novel. Interestingly enough the only other female character apart from Alicia who plays any significant role is a transsexual.

This certainly has a similarity to his earlier novels but the intensity of the sorrow and inability to connect with life and society seems stronger than in his earlier works. Perhaps as he is getting older – he was eighty-nine when it was published – his thoughts turn more to death, not least because his wife had died thirteen years previously. Despite his age this is clear evidence that he can still write a first-class and very moving book.

Publishing history

First published 2022 by Knopf